In December 2017, the Times published an article revealing the results of a study of air pollution levels, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, indicates that a large proportion of the population are being affected by illegal levels of pollution, mainly caused by the N02 gas produced by the use of diesel fuel in cars. (See Most children in Britain are exposed to illegal air pollution levels by Oliver Moody, 27 December 2017)
Of course, while there are large parts of Britain that might seem to be practically unsullied by traffic pollution, these areas tend to be underpopulated rural regions. With the vast majority of working people relying on either public or private transport to take them from home to the workplace (a gruelling twice-daily ordeal involving long periods sitting in stationary traffic), this presents a difficult problem to those attempting to provide a workable solution that leaves the current system of economic relationships intact.
Following a legal battle with the ecological pressure group ClientEarth, the government published a plan for limiting nitrogen dioxide emissions in July 2017. Unfortunately, as with many such initiatives aimed at calming public wrath, it will be some years before any benefit might be felt, even if the measures were adhered to from the word go. In this case, 2027 is the earliest that emissions are likely to fall below the limit set under European law.
An urgent and deadly problem
Figures from the Commons library, analysed by the Labour party, caused shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman to exclaim: “The UK is in the middle of a dirty air emergency!” Indeed, if the estimates produced by Labour’s researchers are anything to go by, 8.3 million under-18s live in areas where the pollution threshold was above the limit during 2015.
While it is obviously to be welcomed that the issue of air pollution caused by vehicle use is beginning to come under scrutiny, a recent and much larger medical study carried out in the US showed that even small fluctuations in air quality can be related to higher or lower numbers of premature deaths of older people, and the findings of this Harvard study imply that even officially ‘safe’ levels of pollution are still harmful. (The Times, op cit)
In the UK it is estimated that around 40,000 early deaths a year are linked to air pollution, but, as the particular N02 emission levels are related to the exponential increase in road traffic since the 1960s, it could be a worsening situation for the generations who’ve spent their entire youth and adult life in such conditions.
A January 2018 article on the BBC’s website entitled ‘Pollution hotspots revealed – check your area’ offered a few handy pointers on how to avoid choking on the fumes of rush-hour traffic if you happen to be walking on the pavement. These include walking on the side of the road facing oncoming traffic, standing back from the road once you’ve pushed the button for the traffic lights, and using side roads where possible. In short, the advice is to drive rather than walk.
And as the experts consulted to elicit these tips also flatly stated that “basic face-masks are not worth the hassle”, the position certainly contradicts the idea that cycling to work will improve one’s health, even though the article’s main thrust was about encouraging people to exercise outside, despite whatever worries they may have about air pollution.
The capitalist system vs sensible planning
It’s hard to see how the problem could be tackled with the same zeal as the most recent measure to improve public health – the banning of smoking in pubs and bars. While this met with little actual resistance save from the unfortunate pub managers who lacked the outside areas required to keep their customers happy, it’s evident that the automobile industry will not take threats to their profit margins lying down.
Moreover, while the cultural shift required to cut the figures of smoking-related deaths could be enforced mainly through changing what’s acceptable in a recreational environment, the fact that so many workers rely on cars to get them to their place of work every day, and that this is combined with a well-established ‘car culture’, where workers are encouraged to see their mode of transportation as an extension of their personality, means that any strong measures to reduce the amount of traffic at peak times would cause chaos for businesses, as well as being interpreted as a drastic attack on people’s personal freedom.
Although transport secretary Chris Grayling announced in late 2017 that proposals were being considered to reopen some of Britain’s regional railways, closed in the 1960s as part of the now infamous Beeching cuts, his admission that “We need to expand our network to unlock jobs and housing growth across the country” betrays that the plan is more about finding private-sector money to enable ‘commuter homes’ to be built in areas previously not well connected enough for developers to be able to charge the maximum price for the homes they build, rather than the result of a realisation that increased road traffic poses a much greater threat to the public than was envisaged by the motorway planners of the 60s. (Rail services lost under 1960s Beeching cuts may reopen by Gwyn Topham, Guardian, 28 November 2018)
So although it’s acknowledged that the environmental mistakes that the Beeching cuts represented were a result of motor industry pressure to switch to road haulage as a more efficient freight system for goods, we’re still a long way from being able to cure the madness wrought on the country and its workers by the adherence to using roads as the primary way of getting people and produce to where they need to be.
Of course, all the gloomy predictions of dystopian, chemical-smog-fuelled commutes through urban centres can always be offset by bourgeois journalists by pointing out to people that the situation is a good deal worse in the developing world. For years, the automatic method of balancing worries about air pollution in Britain has been to remind everyone that no matter how bad we might think the issue is here, it’s a lot, lot worse in China.
With such a large proportion of the world’s industrial output being produced in the People’s Republic, it is easy to understand how decades of fast-paced industrialisation has caused air quality around cities such as Beijing and Tianjin to deteriorate dramatically. But while our media has consistently used this as a way to convince the British public that they’re much better off than Chinese workers, the changes currently being made to this state of affairs by the Communist Party of China government, taking into account the gargantuan scale of the initiatives and the scope with which they are being implemented, mean the status quo looks set to change in the not-too-distant future.
Hence, on 5 January 2018, the Telegraph informed its readers that China’s reforestation plan for 2018 aims to cover 6.6 million hectares in its effort to “shed its polluting image and become world leader in environment protection, since President Donald Trump chose to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement last year”, adding: “The government has also introduced ‘ecological red line’ policies that require local governments to curb what they deem to be ‘irrational development’ and construction near forests, rivers and national parks”. (China to plant forest the size of Ireland in bid to become world leader in conservation)
The contrast between China’s efforts and that of the British government regarding the approach to solving environmental issues could not be further apart.
As our party has always pointed out, you have to be red to be green. So long as the profit motive is society’s guiding principle, measures to improve the environment will always have to be weighed against their effect on profits – which will invariably (until perhaps the bourgeoisie begin to get frightened for themselves), and especially during times of crisis such as the one the capitalist world is experiencing now, be given priority over people’s health.